In many ways, Genesis is a book that is easy to read because it’s a narrative. It tells about people and places, and though those names and locations may be a bit foreign to us, we have heard many of the stories throughout at various times in our lives. There’s a certain familiarity about it. However, Genesis is also a tough read because we may not know what exactly we are supposed to get out of it. Reading through Genesis can make us uncomfortable as we come across sections like chapter 6, where the “Nephilim” are introduced and there’s something about the “sons of God” and the “daughters of man.” These terms are confusing, and perhaps we’ve not encountered this part of the narrative very often in a sermon or Sunday school lesson.
A question came in this week about what we make of this section of chapter 6 (v. 1-4). Who are the “sons of God”? Are they angels? Are they people? Who are the “daughters of men”? Why weren’t these two groups supposed to intermarry?
First, let it be said that these questions have baffled readers and scholars (both Jewish and Christian) for centuries. So, if you’ve asked these questions, you’re in excellent company! It helps to know that these are tough questions that many others have sought to answer, but don’t let the fact that it’s difficult stop us from seeking to at least understand it better (even if we can’t understand completely).
Scholars, as you may imagine, are not all in agreement as to the meaning of the term “sons of God.” The fact is, those who wrote it and were the original readers almost certainly understood what it meant, but the full meaning has been lost to us. So, the most honest answer is that we don’t know.
What I’ll do is offer a few suggestions offered by people who know much more than I do!
One view is that “sons of God” refers to angels that were having relationships with human women. While the term “son of God” is used in other books (Job, for example) to refer to an angelic being, it’s not the only way to understand the term. Furthermore, the Genesis narrative at this point is focused on the continuing rebellion of humans and their advancement in sin. This being the case, it is much more likely that “sons of God” refer to some human creatures, and this is an example of humanity’s continuing spiral downward in sin.
So, what are some other possibilities? John Walton, an Old Testament professor at Wheaton College, suggests that the term (“sons of God”) refers to the kings of the Ancient Near East. These rulers, often regarded as sons of God by the people they rule, may have been not just intermarrying, but involved in some sort of sexual perversion with the “daughters of men.” In this interpretation, the daughters of men would have been God’s people. Interestingly, these Ancient Near East rulers were very concerned with immortality and long life, so the limiting of their days to 120 years would be an appropriate consequence.
A third possibility is that the lines of Seth and Cain are represented by “sons of God” and “daughters of men.” Remember, Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve- the one who murdered his brother, Abel. Later on, Eve has another son whom she called Seth. Because of what he had done, Cain was driven away from the Lord’s presence. Seth was considered the “child of promise,” and it was his family line that “began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26). So, in this interpretation, the sons of God are the line of Seth (the line of promise) and the daughters of men are the descendants of Cain. The children of the promise were intermixing with those who had been cursed. Those who worshipped God were not to live like the rest of humankind, marrying whomever they wanted; rather they were to live as a distinct people.
Given that this section of Genesis is fixed on the theme of humanity’s plunge into disorder, it seems much more likely that the term “sons of God” refers to a group of human beings. Saint Augustine and John Calvin are two examples from history who believed the “sons of God” to be human creatures.
Both the second and third possibilities have their interesting points of support, and of course there are other variations out there. Even without knowing with certainty the identity of the groups of people in this text, we can understand the point of the text is to show us that human beings were choosing their own way. What had begun in the garden, when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is continuing to have its impact. Human beings want to be the determiners of good and evil, and are trying to usurp God from his rightful place. And it’s not going well.
Hope this helps, and please bring us more of your questions, because it’s very likely that others are asking the same ones!
Also: Here’s a short video on the identity of the “nephilim” and how much weight we should give any particular interpretation of that term.